BOOKS: Sacred Cows and Golden Geese

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2001:
Sacred Cows and Golden Geese
by Ray Greek & Jean Swingle Greek
Continuum (320 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017), 2000.
256 pages, hardcover; $24.95.
Sacred Cows and Golden Geese came recommended by several ANIMAL PEOPLE subscribers as the most thorough and factually supported presentation yet of the scientific case against vivisection. Perhaps it is. It may supercede the obsolete texts by Hans Reusch, The Slaughter of the Innocent (1978) and The Naked Empress (1982), which until now have been the Bibles of scientific antivivisectionism.

Like the Reusch volumes, Sacred Cows and Golden Geese extensively reviews medical mistakes of the past that resulted from misinterpreting animal research. But when Reusch wrote, current biotechnology barely even existed in theory. Sacred Cows and Golden Geese hits at least in passing most major biotech developments.

The authors, anesthesiologist Ray Greek and veterinarian Jean Swingle Greek, bring appropriate credentials to their task. They footnote more copiously than Reusch ever did. They are also more discriminating in their use of sources. Most of their claims are anchored to articles from peer-reviewed journals, and most essentials of each citation appear verifiable via the Internet.

Gesturing toward popular appeal, Greek and Greek omit the horrific photos of old experiments that are a mainstay of most antivivisection literature. They explain that they hope to appeal to readers’ intellect, not just wrench hearts and stomachs. But Sacred Cows and Golden Geese is nonetheless more a sermon to the choir than a fair exploration of vivisection from a scientific perspective.

The “scientific” argument, essentially unchanged in at least three centuries, is that animal experiments harm human health because the differences among species are so great that findings cannot be reliably extrapolated from animals to people. The evidence, continuing to amass, is that animal experiments have often not accurately modeled human disease, response to toxins, and response to surgical technique. Much of the data is disputed.

Yet as Greek and Greek establish with quote after quote from researchers, there is general agreement throughout most of the medical and scientific community that animal testing has often failed to predict longterm hazards of carciniogenic chemicals; that older toxicity tests such as the LD-50 were pointlessly obsolete decades ago and have been done during the past 30 years more for legal reasons rather than for reasons of science; that such tests must be phased out and replaced; and that medical training has relied too much on surgery and drugs, instead of disease prevention through diet and exercise.

But all of this falls short of making a case that animal-based research is worthless and useless. To establish that a
screwdriver makes a poor chisel, for example, is not the same thing as establishing that a screwdriver is a poor tool to use for driving screws.

Greek and Greek describe the failures of vivisection without adequately explaining why researchers persist in doing it. The competitive nature of science and medicine and the magnitude of the rewards awaiting discovery tend to render conspiracy theories absurd. Further, the advent of genetic modification has begun to counter arguments about species differences. The organs of mice and pigs may indeed function differently from those of humans, but the differences narrow markedly when the organs of mice and pigs are grown from human genes.

One way or another, the scientific case against vivisection always circles back to moral and ethical arguments. Even if all the scientific problems with animal research could be resolved, the moral and ethical dilemmas would remain: just because a thing can be done does not mean that it should be.

Like Reusch, Greek and Greek ultimately come across much like “scientific” creationists, whose cases hang on the imprecisions and past errors of evolutionary theory. Scientific discovery is by nature imprecise. Science progresses because theories are constantly tested, revised, and retested in light of new findings. Animal research survives because on balance it seems to produce useful results. Whenever a more effective method of pursuing a particular type of investigation has evolved, animal research in that pursuit has dwindled, not least because using lab animals is expensive.

Innovation and moral concern about animal suffering may eventually end lab use of animals–not, however, because animal research “doesn’t work,” in scientific terms, but rather because a non-animal approach better serves the sum of the needs and wishes of society.

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